Distinguishing Between Jhanas

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    I’ve been working through the Stages set out in the Mind Illuminated over the last 4-5 months, and I believe at this point my practice is somewhere in the vicinity of Stage 6 or 7, where the jhanas are now coming into play.

    In the four year’s that I’ve been exploring contemplative practice, this is easily the most consistent progress I’ve made, so I feel incredible indebted to Culadasa for the exceptionally useful meditation instructions he clearly and precisely describes in his book.

    As regards the jhanas, however, I think I could use just a bit more information about the types of jhana (whole body, pleasure, etc.) and levels of jhana (fist, second, third, etc.), and how they may or may not relate to one another.

    To provide a bit more context first, I think I can only be confident that I’ve properly attained to a jhana once. However, powerful mindfulness, directed and sustained attention, and pleasure seem to be regularly accessible in my practice. In the recent sit where deep absorption was experienced, a kind of ecstatic joy seemed to pervade my conscious experience, which caught me quite off guard — and resulted in me cracking up, and ruining it. When I reflected on the sit afterward, I wasn’t sure if I had progressed through the first whole body jhana without being aware of it, and then straight into and second, or if I perhaps made the mistake of making pleasure the object of my meditation, which resulted in entering the first of the pleasure jhanas by accident.

    In consulting the Mind Illuminated, I’m not sure I’m entirely clear I know what the answer is, or how to distinguish the second whole body jhana from the first pleasure jhana in terms of their phenomenology. I can see the methods of attaining the states are different, but, in terms of what is experienced, they seem quite similar. Appendix D (Table 7) seems to suggest that attention remains on the whole-body breath sensations as one progresses through the whole body jhanas but those sensations progressively become less prominent and move to the background. This I find a little perplexing. For something to be in the background, isn’t it by definition in awareness, not attention? If this is so, what is different about the second whole body jhana and the first pleasure jhana, other than the method for arriving at access concentration?

    I suspect there might be a subtlety here that I’m not quite grasping, so if anyone can provide any useful guidance, it would most appreciated.



    My initial suggestion would be to do what works and don’t worry about parsing the distinctions at this point. You first should just get familiar with getting into jhana consistently. Experiment with using the whole body with the breath and then try using pleasurable sensation. See what works and enjoy yourself.

    Hope this helps.



    Thanks for your reply, Matthew.

    The chapter of the Mind Illuminated on Stage Six seems to suggest that one should learn to access jhana via the breath sensations in the body before moving onto the pleasure jhana, but I suppose there’s probably no need to adhere to that rigidly, so I will take your advice and just work on accessing jhana consistently by whatever means.

    Thanks again.




    I just reread for the umpteenth time all TMI has to say about Whole Body Jhana. You say:
    “Appendix D (Table 7) seems to suggest that attention remains on the whole-body breath sensations as one progresses through the whole body jhanas but those sensations progressively become less prominent and move to the background. ”

    That is exactly what the book says is second jhana for Whole Body.

    In my correspondence with Matthew, he is dismissive of jhanas. I completed the 10 stages but felt something was missing. I find that it was not the jhanas themselves but the Meditative Joy that is that is foundational to the jhanas. I think MJ also stabilizes stages 9 & 10. If you want to pursue MJ, there are 13 Culadasa videos on Youtube you can search under Culadasa using title template “TCMC-Weekend-10-15-2010”

    Good Luck with that!


    Thanks Wiley.

    My question on the jhanas dates back a while. Thankfully, things have progressed a little since then.

    To be fair to Matthew, I think in his reply to me he was maybe noticing that I’d only just begun to access jhanas, so perhaps he didn’t think I needed to be splitting hairs about which jhana I was technically in. Well, at least that’s how it seemed to me. I found it helpful at the time.

    That said, I will bear in mind your point about the importance of meditative joy as I progress further, because I have by no means mastered the jhanas yet.

    Thanks again. It’s always useful to get another perspective on these things.



    Hi Wiley,

    Nice to “cyber” meet you, and thank you for your regular presence on these forums.

    I just wanted to address briefly something you said in your correspondence with Nelson. You mentioned that you “completed the 10 Stages,” but found that meditative joy was “missing.” The thing is, one cannot actually complete the 10 Stages without the arising of profound meditative joy. This is because joy is an inevitable byproduct of deep unification of mind. Now, for various reasons, some people may have more difficulty in experiencing joy than others, but this is something that gets resolved in Stage Eight. In fact, if you review the chapter on Stage Eight, you’ll see it’s defined by the arising and subsequent maturation of joy. If you have perfectly sustained attention and continuous metacognitive awareness without much joy, then you are in Stage Seven. If you are experiencing effortlessness but still lack joy, you are in an early Stage Eight. But the entire trajectory of Stages Eight, Nine, and Ten is largely defined by the symptomatology of joy itself, and one of the five factors of samatha, the mental state of Stage Ten, is joy. You may also find it worthwhile to re-read chapter one, An Overview of the Ten Stages.

    I hope this is somewhat useful!




    Nelson Satoru: I’m not sure I’m entirely clear I know what the answer is, or how to distinguish the second whole body jhana from the first pleasure jhana in terms of their phenomenology.

    First jhāna (of any flavour) has vitakka, vicāra, pīti, sukha, ekaggatā.

    Second jhāna (of any flavour) has pīti, sukha, ekaggatā, but no vitakka and no vicāra.

    So the difference is in vitakka and vicāra, which are translated and interpreted differently by different meditation teachers, but which are for the most part rendered as directed (or applied) and sustained attention. These are dropped when moving from first to second jhāna. This means that second jhāna has a quality of “self-sustaining stability” that first jhāna lacks. First jhāna feels more effortful, second jhāna is much more unwavering, becasue you do not need to voluntarily direct and sustain your own attention. Apart from this, they are fairly similar. The bigger differences are when moving from second to third jhāna and from third to fourth jhāna (more on this below).

    In my personal experience, once I got skilled at entering a certain type of jhāna, first jhāna feels kind of like “the effort to enter second jhāna”. So for example, with the pleasure and whole-body jhānas, which are relatively easier for me, I find it natural to kind of skip directly to second jhāna and then abide there. Again, in my personal experience, if you re-enter first jhāna again and again, at one point it will progress naturally into second jhāna after getting used to it and feeling that you can let go of the effort to guard and control your attention to stay in it. This is very similar to the progress from Stage Seven to Stage Eight in TMI, again, in my experience.

    With the luminous jhānas, on the other hand, which are much more difficult for me, it is very hard for me to progress beyond first jhāna – or, on many days, attaining it in the first place. So I suspect that, if the difference between first and second jhāna is not clear to you, this means that *probably* your first jhāna is still not very stable, and you have not worked long enough on it, and you haven’t entered second jhāna yet, otherwise you would have noticed the difference.

    The differences between second, third and fourth jhānas are much more marked. They are related to how pīti (rapture) and sukha (bliss) are gradually replaced by upekkhā (equanimity). To borrow from the descriptions of Daniel Ingram in MCTB, third jhāna is about getting bored with pīti, and fourth jhāna is about noticing how sukha has an irritating, noisy quality, with respect to the full expression of upekkhā that characterises fourth jhāna.

    Does this help?

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by  neko.
    • This reply was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by  neko.


    Addendum. I realise I haven’t answered your question fully.

    Nelson Satoru I’m not sure I’m entirely clear I know what the answer is, or how to distinguish the second whole body jhana from the first pleasure jhana in terms of their phenomenology.

    About the difference between whole-body jhāna and pleasure jhāna: this is related to the object of concentration that you have used to enter the state. In the whole-body jhānas, you are focusing on the sensations of your whole body – specifically to those related to the “breath” or “energy” flowing through your body. In a pleasure jhāna, you would be focussing on pleasure (pīti/sukha) itself.

    So whole-body jhāna number 2 has pleasure (pīti/sukha) but no directed and sustained attention. It is self sustaining, pleasurable. Your attention is on the body sensations, your awareness is suffused by the pleasure, happiness, excitement of the jhāna.

    Pleasure jhāna number 1 also has pīti/sukha, but it feels less stable. You are still putting effort on keeping your attention directed and sustained on your object of concentration, which is pleasure itself.

    Back to personal experience: I would say that the kind of pīti/sukha of a 1st/2nd whole-body jhāna feels more embodied, like the name suggests, whereas the kind of pīti/sukha of 1st/2nd pleasure jhāna has a more “pervading” quality. This is related to the fact that in the whole-body practices your attention is on the body, so you perceive the body against the background of pleasure, or vice-versa. In the pleasure practices, on the other hand the body is unnecessary, so to speak. You usually start accessing a pleasure jhāna by “anchoring” to a pleasurable physical sensation in a specific part of your body, but since you are focusing on pleasure itself, rather than on the specifics of where in the body it arises, the body is kind of secondary to the whole process.

    This last part was mostly my personal experience, so I understand it may not be 100% in line with what Culadasa says in TMI.

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by  neko.

    Thanks Neko.

    Again, my question that provoked Wiley’s response dates back a while to May (7 months ago). My understanding of the practice has, thankfully, come along a bit since then. (It’s also gone backwards many times since then, too. Haha!)

    Revisiting my own question, I can now see that I was somewhat confused about the relationship between attention-awareness and what could be called the foreground-background of consciousness. I seemed to have thought that those were more or less synonymous, but what I now understand is that there is an important distinction to be made: Attention/awareness relates to the resolution and scope of perception; foreground/background relates to the extent to which phenomena are dominant or subordinate in consciousness — or, put another way, the “volume” of conscious phenomena.

    In my understanding, directed and sustained attention (vitakka and vicāra), actually continue as one goes up through the Whole-Body Jhanas, but they progressively move to the background. This is different from the Pleasure Jhanas, where, as you say, vitakka and vicāra are forgone entirely from the 2nd jhana onward. What I’ve said there is slightly different to how you described the distinctions between the jhanas above, but this is perhaps more a matter of semantics than any fundamental differences in the distinctions being made.

    As I said in my original question, it’s quite obvious that the methods for attaining the jhanic states are different, but it was the differences in their phenomenology that I was interested in. To my mind, it seems the differences are as follows:

    1. Directed and sustained attention continue on the whole-body breath sensations, but this has now moved to the *background*.
    2. Peripheral awareness of piti and sukha in the form of pleasure and happiness now dominate conscious experience, so they have moved into the *foreground*.

    1. Directed and sustained attention is on sukha in the form of pleasure. This occurs in the *foreground*.
    2. Peripheral awareness is of piti and sukha in the form of happiness, which at this stage is in the *background*.

    What are your thoughts here? Does that sound about right to you? Or is there something that’s not quite right?

    You’ll have to bear in mind my experience of the jhanas has exclusively come from following Culadasa’s instructions in TMI. So, I guess if you’ve engaged with a broader range of jhanic methods, that might explain the differences in our understanding/experience.

    Anyway, thank again for sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.





    I have read ALL the books on Jhanas and done a fruitless 2 week retreat on same. Stay with the TMI descriptions of jhanas because they do not contradict each other. I found the attached handout very edifying.

    I decided today to give the jhanas another go, after taking a fruitful break of several weeks.

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